Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok opens with a fable, then cuts straight to the present day. British born Helen (played by Siu-See Hung) stands overwhelmed by her move to Hong Kong, a place of skyscrapers and rushing commuters. She encounters the memory of her grandmother, Lily Kwok (Tina Chiang) and begs her to tell her life story. As they go further into the past, the family secrets that have been hidden from Helen until now are dragged into the light.
In-Sook Chappell’s play is adapted from the memoir Sweet Mandarin by the restauranteur Helen Tse, itself inspired by the Manchester restaurant of the same name. Food takes a starring role alongside the characters as they describe family dishes and the memories they recall. The Proustian affect of cooking Chinese dishes on stage is a powerful one and will evoke a different association in every audience member, with varying levels of intensity.
This touring co-production from Yellow Earth, Black Theatre Live, and the Manchester Royal Exchange is directed by Jennifer Tang, who mixes the modernity of the music and city buzz at the beginning with deliberate hints of the infamous film In the Mood for Love, especially when Lily is recounting the story of her marriage to Helen’s grandfather (played by the charismatic Matthew Leonhart). The romance in these scenes is full of heart-turning nostalgia for a period long gone. But this nostalgia is later shown to be deceptive as we subsequently see the drudgery Lily is put through as an amah for a rich family, while her own baby starves. Her boss Mrs Woodman (brilliantly acted with just the right amount of comic insensitivity by Ruth Gibson) is patronising, well-meaning and, as Helen points out, spectacularly racist.
Helen is a wonderful protagonist and so refreshingly Mancunian. Hung plays her as both pragmatic and romantic, with a lovely expressiveness. She is twinned beautifully with her opposite lead Lily, who’s her more experienced and weary companion. As more of the painful past is unravelled before us, we start to understand why.
I admit to feeling more than a pang of guilt and recognition while watching Mountains. It is easy to feel parallels, also being a third generation immigrant born in Manchester, originating from an Asian country disturbed by violence. It is tempting to beg for the painful stories, to know how you came to be here, whether it is because of the brutal partition of India and Pakistan, or Japan’s occupation of China, or something else entirely. “You don’t know what you’re asking for,” Lily says bleakly.
Mountains is touching in its intimacy, in both its portrayal of history and its evocation of Manchester. It is a moving and original look at the power of family and endurance.
Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok was at the Manchester Royal Exchange until April 7th, and is on a national tour until June 2nd. For more details, and future dates, click here.